Kundra Unplugged

The nation's first chief information officer was deeply frustrated when the Obama Administration's Cash for Clunkers program proved so popular it crashed the online system built to support it.

He also traces his preoccupation with the idea of government being able to run virtually in an emergency -- without a dedicated physical infrastructure -- to the day his interview for the post of Arlington County information technology infrastructure chief was interrupted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Vivek Kundra's Reflections on Public Service, published during his first workday as a private citizen, is no ship jumper's tell all.

Nor is it much of a potboiler. The 12-page paper posted by Kundra's new employer, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is replete with phrases and anecdotes taken directly from the former CIO's standard speech about the necessity of -- and his division's early successes at -- reforming federal IT.

The document is worth perusing, though, for a better sense of the man who first sat in the federal CIO's chair and who defined the post, maybe for several administrations to come.

The India-born and Tanzania-raised Kundra is a sucker for the American dream, describing his first vision of the U.S. as a "land of unlimited opportunity built on the premise that all men are created equal."

He's not saccharine about it, though. Soon after arriving in Gaithersburg, Md., the 11-year-old Kundra, out of his element and knowing little English, began speaking to some black classmates in Swahili.

"I suspect they thought I was making fun of them," he wrote, "because the next thing I knew, I was being beaten up. Not the warm welcome I was expecting!"

The former CIO also evidently enjoys setting a scene when he's freed from the terseness and jargon of agency memos and Congressional testimony.

Kundra's first working day at the White House, for instance, was a "bright February day, the previous morning's dusting of snow melting on the ground." The ridiculousness of the Cash for Clunkers crash was driven home to him on a "hot DC August night" when he was "frustrated that [he] couldn't catch a cab, but...even more frustrated that technology was complicating the lives of thousands of Americans."

The outgoing CIO sometimes seemed to never be satisfied with an achievable goal, such as when he trumped his own formal plan to cut the government's 2,100 data centers by a third over five years, with a someday-in-the-future vision of three "digital Fort Knoxes"

This tendency seems to have come from a commitment to grand visions, though, rather than from frustration with more achievable goals. Kundra closes his reflection with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt, which he says he's carried in his wallet since he first entered public service after that September 11, 2001 interview in Arlington.

"We are face to face with our destiny," the Rough Rider president wrote, "and we must meet it with a high and resolute courage. For ours is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness of striving mighty; let us rather run the risk of wearing out rather than rusting out."

Has IT ever sounded so noble?